Review: Inferno (dir. Ron Howard, 2016)

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Remember The Da Vinci Code? It was all the rage a decade or so ago, what with its sensationalistic claims that Jesus had had a wife and child, and that a secret society had been keeping his descendants hidden for centuries to protect them from the big bad Catholic church. The book spawned a film, and the film spawned a sequel (which was actually based on an earlier book), and then… it all just kind of stopped. Dan Brown wrote a third novel, The Lost Symbol, but the studio never got around to filming it. And then he wrote a fourth novel, Inferno, and now that book has been turned into a film that is landing in theatres after a seven-year gap. And the new film, it turns out, is the most generic and, perhaps not coincidentally, the least potentially offensive of the bunch.

Once again, Tom Hanks plays Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor who specializes in religious symbolism. And once again, he has mere days, maybe even hours, to follow some coded clues embedded in Renaissance art and avert some sort of disaster. But this time there is no deep dive into the shadows of Church history, and no Illuminati or Priory of Sion lurking in the wings — just an evil tech billionaire (Ben Foster) who is obsessed with overpopulation and has planted a bomb somewhere that will start a plague that wipes out most of the people living on this planet. And this time, instead of unlocking secrets that have been hiding in plain sight for centuries, Langdon discovers that someone has doctored a replica of an old depiction of Hell so that it contains unambiguously modern-day messages. And that makes the film shallower, or less resonant, than its predecessors; it has none of those “whoa” moments that draw back the curtain and make you think the world and its institutions might be stranger and more mysterious than you ever imagined.

Langdon has more catching up to do than usual in this film. The first time we see him, he is waking up in a hospital with no memory of how he got there — so not only does he have to figure out what the tech billionaire was up to (I use the past tense because the billionaire plunges to his death in the film’s opening minutes, to escape being caught), he also has to figure out how and why he, Langdon, was incapacitated. And come to that, Langdon also has to figure out what he was up to before he lost his memory, after some security-camera footage reveals that he’s the one who stole a valuable artifact from a museum.

Langdon is assisted in his quest by Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), a doctor who is attending him when he first wakes up, and who gets swept up in his race against time when an assassin (Ana Ularu) shows up at the hospital, forcing them to run for their lives. Langdon is also pursued by international agents in SWAT gear who break down doors and burst into rooms with cries of “World Health Organization!” (Who knew the WHO was so badass?) Along the way there are the usual twists, reveals, and shifting allegiances, but it all passes by so quickly — the film zips from one chase sequence to the next — that you never have a chance to stop and figure out whether the story actually makes any sense.

And that’s probably just as well. Taking its cue from Dante’s Divine Comedy, the new film takes an occasional break from the doomsday-virus stuff to ponder topics like lost love (à la Dante and Beatrice), but these asides pale next to the religion-and-science musings of the previous film, and the basic plot feels like something borrowed from a James Bond movie, right down to the SPECTRE-like organization (led by Irrfan Khan) that lies behind some of the violence. If you’re looking for a few thrills and exotic locations, you could do worse than Inferno, but there’s little here that will send people running to Wikipedia after the movie’s over, the way the earlier films did.

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